Erekat acknowledged that Israel had presented the Palestinians with a proposal in November 2008 which "talked about Jerusalem and almost 100% of the West Bank," and he noted that Mahmoud Abbas could have accepted this proposal, just as the "Palestinian negotiators could have given in in 1994, 1998, or 2000." Intriguingly, Erekat then proceeded to reveal what he considered a "secret": he explained why the Palestinians had rejected the recent proposals just like the ones offered in 2000/01 during the negotiations in Camp David and Taba. What prevented an agreement every time - at least according to Erekat - was the Israeli request that the Palestinians acknowledge the central importance of the Temple Mount for Jewish history and religion.
It is worthwhile to quote Erekat's description of a scene at Camp David, when Bill Clinton tried to convince Yassir Arafat to come to an agreement: "You will be the first president of a Palestinian state, within the 1967 borders - give or take, considering the land swap - and East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state, but we want you, as a religious man, to acknowledge that the Temple of Solomon is located underneath the Haram Al-Sharif." According to Erekat, Arafat responded "defiantly" to Clinton: "I will not be a traitor. Someone will come to liberate it after 10, 50, or 100 years. Jerusalem will be nothing but the capital of the Palestinian state, and there is nothing underneath or above the Haram Al-Sharif except for Allah."
It may be debatable if Erekat is really revealing a "secret" here, but it is certainly surprising that the long-time Palestinian chief negotiator chose to emphasize an entirely symbolic issue and to present the repeated Palestinian refusal to compromise on this issue as a demonstration of proud defiance that is ultimately more important than the achievement of a peace agreement that would allow for the creation of a Palestinian state.
If this is indeed the message the Palestinians wanted to convey, they apparently succeeded if the recollections of former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami are anything to go by. Describing talks held in November and December of 2000 on the division of Jerusalem in an interview with Haaretz in September 2001, Ben-Ami explained that the Israeli negotiators had agreed to the division of the city and to full Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount, but asked that the Palestinians acknowledge that the site was sacred to the Jews. When the Palestinians refused categorically, the ultra-dovish Ben-Ami concluded: "At that moment I grasped they are really not Sadat ... they were not willing to move toward our position even at the emotional and symbolic level. At the deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of title here."
Now let's be clear: Jerusalem is massive sticking point in Israel -- I've had putatively pro-two-staters tell me they will personally take up arms to prevent its division (they're always notably evasive when I ask if that means they're willing to attack Israel if Israel agrees to such a division. But the point is to reveal the depth of the sentiment). It is a big deal that Israel put it on the table to the degree that it did -- I'd consider it perfectly just if Israel demanded dual sovereignty. And accepting a right of return in any form beyond compensation is a redline I thought Israel would never cross -- frankly, I'm on the record as saying that Israel should pay compensation to Palestinian refugees but tie the issue to getting compensation for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled Arab states and everyone forgets about. But that's because I'm a silly little man who -- in spite of every page of global history -- thinks that Jewish claims matter.
Erekat's statement is simply horrifying if true -- for it is a flat acknowledgment that the deepest Palestinian redline isn't settlements, isn't Jerusalem, isn't statehood, isn't even the right of return, but is the idea of affirming Jews as equals. But there seems to be quite a bit of corroboration. The adamant refusal to recognize Jewish historical connection to Israel and Jerusalem has a long history amongst the Palestinian political leadership. Jackson Diehl says Abbas verified that he rejected the plan, but doesn't say why. Diehl notes, incidentally, that Abbas' strategy at the moment is to simply wait Israel out -- he doesn't want a deal now because a deal might mean negotiating, and making concessions of his own. Like, say, agreeing that Jerusalem is a holy city to Jews too. Well I'm sorry, but that's not a good enough reason to keep your people in an occupied state. It's tough to feel sympathy when you reject a deal now simply because it requires you to treat your partner with dignity and respect. And it lends credence to Jewlicious' argument, which I've long been sympathetic to, urging Israel to simply unilaterally withdraw and make the issue moot.
Rejection of this plan would be bad enough even if it were over a wholly symbolic issue -- it would verify every pro-Israel hawk's intuition that Palestinian authorities care more about standing in an incorrigibly hostile stance to Jews than they do about the political goal of achieving Palestinian independence. But it isn't purely symbolic -- serious substantive rights are implicated here. While at some level acknowledge of Jewish religious and historical connection to the Western Wall is a recognition claim, Israelis and Jews still remember that they were forbidden to pray at the Wall when it was under Jordanian occupation. The refusal to acknowledge a Jewish connection to the site paves the way for a similar denial of religious freedom in the future -- particularly if the land itself is under Palestinian sovereignty (and even more particularly if the sovereign is Hamas). Frankly, if "moderate" Palestinian leaders are so invested in an absolutist stance against Jewish history and religious practice that they'll sacrifice their own state on the principle, there is little reason to believe that they'll be particularly inclined to respect religious liberty and freedom over the Temple Mount site once they gain possession over it.
I believe in putting pressure on Israel to get rid of the settlements and get them back to the negotiating table. Palestinian malfeasance is no justification for a response in kind, and the settlements particularly can't be justified under any plausible rationale. But there is plenty of truth to the point that Palestinians have refused to negotiate in good faith for a long time now -- and the primary area where they dig in their heels isn't in how they relate to Israel, but how they relate to Jews. There is a seemingly intractable opposition within the PA to any sort of acknowledgment of Jewish equality, history, dignity, or experience. And Israelis and Jews are right to think that without that element, no amount of land will bring peace.